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After a gap of 92 years, rugby will be an Olympic event again in 2016, when 24 teams — 12 men’s and 12 women’s — compete in Rio. Rugby’s administrators anticipate an enormous boost to the game from the type of entertainment that has made sevens such a hit.
Sevens has perfected the razzmatazz of short, sharp contests focused on speed, passing and handling, with much less of the arcane rucking and mauling that baffle professionals and spectators alike. Bernard Lapasset, chairman of World Rugby, the game’s governing body, calls the format a “winning brand of high-octane, competitive and broadcast-friendly action, global locations and festival atmosphere”.
In that sense, sevens draws comparison to cricket’s T20 format, where big hits and plenty of wickets are guaranteed. The question is not whether the Olympics will make rugby more popular but whether its appeal will be limited to the sevens game, particularly as there is very little player crossover between the two formats.
But Mark Egan, head of competitions and performance at World Rugby, says it is necessary to look beyond the top tier of rugby-playing nations to see the important role sevens plays overall. “Our sevens plan, launched in 2011, is to use sevens as a vehicle to grow the whole game,” he says. “Yes, the top countries will have a group of centralised players who only play sevens, but when you see the tier two nations such as the US and Canada, a huge number have come through the sevens pathway into professional and international rugby.”
Sevens capitalises on rugby’s increasingly international appeal: the men’s annual HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series features 22 teams, including Portugal, Russia, Brazil and Belgium.
Rugby had been introduced to the Olympic Games in the early 20th century by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee and an admirer of the Victorian British ideal of education through sporting endeavour. After rugby’s last Olympic appearance in 1924 — when the US took the gold medal, defeating France in Paris — de Coubertin retired from the IOC and the sport lost its key advocate.
Rugby made determined efforts in the 1990s to be reinstated as an Olympic sport, though it took until 2009 before it was decided rugby should feature in Rio. The game’s lobbying was bolstered by strong growth in rugby’s world appeal — 7.2m people of all ages play the game in its various forms in 120 countries affiliated to World Rugby. Last season’s HSBC World Sevens Series was broadcast to 400m homes.
Egan argues it was the 2009 Dubai Rugby World Cup Sevens, which included a 16-team women’s competition, that impressed the IOC. “That was a very positive element of our presentation,” he says.
Rugby was already in several multisport events, such as the Commonwealth and Asian games. “We will bring a lot of excitement and good crowds,” Egan says, adding that the Olympics are an opportunity to develop the game and “bring new players to the attention of the public”.
“These are superb athletes, they are going to stand up well on the Olympic stage,” he says.